Migrants Aren’t ‘Animals’ and A ‘Bloodbath’ Isn’t Inevitable

This article opens with the columnist’s experience recognizing the warning signs of mass atrocities in South Sudan in 2016. It then uses the same framework to assess the growing risk of mass atrocities in the U.S. today.

On July 7, 2016, while I was a diplomat supporting a peace agreement in South Sudan, my close American colleagues were repeatedly fired upon by South Sudanese troops as they drove past the president’s residence. For the next four days, the South Sudanese government and rebel army battled just outside the walls of our compound. When the fighting ended, “to celebrate their victory,” nearly 100 South Sudanese fighters breached a different compound housing our partner organizations, where they rampaged for hours, looting, shooting, and raping the people inside. The attack was unprecedented in the humanitarian world. Following that battle, there was an upswing in hate speech across South Sudan.

Afterwards in Washington D.C., my colleagues and I spent countless hours trying to make sense of what happened, looking back at the warning signs, and thinking about how the sudden outbreak of violence could’ve been prevented. To raise awareness and encourage action to prevent further atrocities, I organized a field trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for my evacuated team.

There, genocide prevention experts explained that this kind of violence is not spontaneous. There are warning signs, as had been present in Germany ten years before the Holocaust began. We learned about more recent research that analyzed the global historical experience with mass atrocities, defined as large-scale, systematic violence against civilians.  We learned about American political scientist Scott Straus’ work to identify early warning signs. 

We also learned that no country is immune to the risks of systemic violence against civilians.

In 2016, I analyzed what was happening in South Sudan against Straus’ warning signs and saw a clear risk of ethnic cleansing. Nobody was talking about that then, but within a few months, the United Nations delivered a similar warning.

In recent weeks, I have seen things happening in the U.S. that remind me of those warning signs in South Sudan. The U.S. is, of course, different from South Sudan in a host of ways, but I am not alone among experts who are increasingly concerned about mass atrocities in the U.S. In 2022, Alexander Hinton, the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Prevention at Rutgers University, wrote a book called “It Can Happen Here.”

Some signs are well known, such as political polarization. Research from 2020 shows that political polarization has grown more dramatically in the U.S. than in several other leading democracies in recent decades as our political parties have become increasingly aligned with certain ideologies, races, and religious identities. Social scientists from Brown and Stanford found the U.S. trend around “affective polarization”, a phenomenon in which citizens feel more negatively toward other political parties than their own, to be “exceptional”.

Other warning signs have become more evident recently, including leaders using apocalyptic rhetoric. On Saturday in Ohio, former President Donald Trump mentioned a “bloodbath” if he doesn’t win the upcoming election. He later claimed he was referring to economic collapse, but if you take that evocative word in conjunction with his assertions that American democracy will likely end if he doesn’t win, the true intentions become clearer. Either Trump’s claims are simply rhetorical or he has a plan. Either way, we can’t forget that many people convicted for crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol have said it was Trump (and presumably his words) that led them down that path.

The warning signs don’t stop there. On Saturday, Trump also used dehumanizing language about migrants. Such rhetoric is a critical step in paving the way for mass atrocities, as it makes it more difficult to pity the “other” and easier to justify violence against them. In the years before the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the media (later convicted of crimes against humanity) spread hatred by repeatedly calling the targeted minority group ‘cockroaches’ until the idea spread. In that light, the most dangerous thing Trump said in Ohio last weekend was regarding immigrants, “Young people have been in jail for years… If you can call them people. I don’t know if you can call them people. In some cases, they are not people in my opinion… These are animals.”

Developing and deploying irregular armed forces is another warning sign. On Jan. 6, it was the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers who led the way – and were later convicted of seditious conspiracy for their roles. When it comes to migrants, it seems reasonable that Trump could empower Operation Lone Star in Texas and the Florida State Guard, which are state-led, hybrid armed groups. The Texas group is already raising private funds for transporting immigrants across the country. While the Florida guard is ostensibly for humanitarian activities, it is also suspected of providing paramilitary training to members.

Also troubling is the enormous accumulation of weapons in this country. Guns are readily accessible and present across the U.S. According to the Small Arms Survey, there are about 120 civilian-owned guns for every 100 residents here. That’s nearly 10 times the average rate of gun ownership among countries with more than one million residents, and it’s more than double the rate of the next-highest country, Yemen, which has been embroiled in armed conflict for years. In addition, there has been an exponential increase in Americans’ ability to legally carry a concealed weapon without a permit since a 2022 Supreme Court ruling. So, if partisans wanted to attack civilians, it wouldn’t be difficult to find the means to do it.

And that’s not all. When leaders remove moderates from leadership and public service, it’s time to sit up straighter. This is one reason why the recent shake-up at the Republican National Committee (RNC) is concerning. Soon after cinching the Republican nomination for president, Trump installed new leadership there, including a family member, and more than 60 staff were fired. According to Trump senior advisor Chris LaCivita, the cuts were designed to eliminate duplication as the Trump campaign and the RNC work to become essentially one organization. These deep organizational changes will make it extremely difficult for anyone within the GOP to exercise dissent or offer checks and balances.

On Truth Social on Sunday, Trump also called for Liz Cheney and the entire Congressional committee on Jan. 6 to be jailed. In addition, the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 includes plans to cut thousands of civil service jobs and dismantle federal agencies. Such actions would reduce the number of people who could potentially provide checks and balances on a violent agenda and instill a silencing fear within the federal workforce.

Finally, when acts of violence go unpunished by the law, this can be seen as a green light for more violence in the future. Will Trump be held legally accountable for his actions leading up to and on the day of Jan. 6? It’s eight months before election day, and we simply don’t know. According to some legal experts, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow Trump to stand for election in all states effectively grants Trump legal immunity, at least until after the election, when all bets are off. Not only does Trump now believe he’ll evade responsibility for the events of Jan. 6, but he’s also promising to release convicted Jan 6 offenders from jail on day one of his administration.

As unresolved grievances and deep disagreements over the 2020 election and immigration continue to fester, there is a solid chance that election results will be contested this fall like they were in 2020. A third of Americans—and a majority of Republicans—still believe that the 2020 election was stolen. What if Trump loses again? Given their belief that our system is irreparably broken, nobody should be surprised if MAGA supporters decide to abandon the democratic system and take matters into their own hands.

Does Scott Straus, the researcher behind the early warning signs, think the U.S. is on a path to mass atrocities?

“Mass atrocities usually happen in the context of armed conflict, and I hope we are still far from that,” he told me. “But the dangers are real.”

As a peacebuilder, I take comfort in knowing that, while nearly one in four Americans now believe that political violence may be justified to “save” the country, most Americans disagree. And there are plenty of things that everyday Americans can do to counter these trends and prevent political violence, as you’ll see in my next column.

Danielle M. Reiff is a professional peacebuilder who has lived and worked around the world promoting democracy, human rights, and peace. She is currently leading the Peacebuilders initiative in the lead-up to the 2024 Presidential elections to promote nonviolence, unity in diversity, and a peaceful transfer of power. You can learn more and sign up for the Peacebuilders email list at www.peacebuildersunite.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own